By Emma Thomasson and Arno Schuetze
BERLIN (Reuters) - German retailer Metro AG plans to sell its struggling Real hypermarkets and is confident of interest in the chain, though bankers played down talk it might attract Amazon and a price tag of up to 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion).
Industry bankers contacted by Reuters said private equity firms were the most likely bidders and that Metro might have to effectively pay a buyer to take the chain off its hands.
Foreign players have shunned the cut-throat German grocery market, which is dominated by discounters Aldi and Lidl, since Walmart took a loss of $1 billion when it sold its stores to Metro and pulled out of the country in 2006.
Metro says it wants to focus on its wholesale business which serves independent traders, hotels and restaurants and is more shielded from ecommerce, while doing more delivery to customers.
"The fact that we repeatedly had expressions of interest shows that we can take up the journey again," Metro's chief executive Olaf Koch told journalists on Friday.
Metro previously tried to sell Real in 2012 and a consortium of Apollo and Towerbrook made an offer, as did KKR, before the retailer opted instead to restructure the chain.
Koch expected the sales process to take up to eight months.
HSBC's European retail analyst, Andrew Porteous, welcomed the plan and raised his price target for Metro shares to 14 euros from 11.50 euros.
"Increased focus is a positive," he said in a note. "We have consistently held that Metro needed to simplify in order to create value."
Large European retailers such as Ahold, Carrefour, Auchan, Tesco are unlikely to bid for Real, people familiar with the industry said.
The chain may attract more interest from investors such as Apollo-backed Alteri, owner of Babywalz and CBR Fashion Group or from other private equity firms.
Buyout groups, have had mixed results though with retail in Germany and several deals - such as Sun Capital's Neckermann investment - have turned sour.
Some analysts speculated Amazon could be interested after its acquisition of U.S. grocery chain Whole Foods last year. Germany is its second biggest market after the United States.
"Germany's grocery ecommerce is very underdeveloped and Germany is a very important country for Amazon," said Bernstein analyst Bruno Monteyne, adding a price of around 1 billion euros would be no hurdle for the ecommerce giant.
An Amazon spokesman declined to comment and the buyout groups named either declined to comment or were not immediately available.
FINDING A BUYER
Real has suffered from tough competition from the advance of online players like Amazon and has sought to build up an online grocery business in recent years. Its ecommerce still only accounts for 2 percent of its 7.2 billion euro sales.
The business posted a loss and saw sales slide 7.2 percent in the latest quarter, which it blamed on an early Easter and unusually hot weather.
Bankers do not view Real as high on Amazon's shopping list. One said Real could be sold for "near zero at best", while another said Metro may have to pay to offload the business.
Koch said selling Real was not connected to Daniel Kretinsky buying a stake in Metro last month, although he said the company had met the Czech billionaire, whose move prompted speculation he could make a full bid and take Metro private.
Analysts said a financial investor might be interested in the real estate value of the 65 hypermarkets that Real owns, while other options could be a sale of parcels of stores to chains like Lidl or dominant supermarket group Edeka.
However, peers need to tread carefully to avoid anti-trust concerns like those that dogged Edeka's purchase of loss-making chain Kaiser’s in 2015.
One of the bankers said fellow German supermarket chain Kaufland, held by Lidl owner Schwarz Group, could show an interest in some sites. Koch told journalists the aim was to sell Real as a whole rather than as a bundle of stores.
Trade union Verdi criticized Metro's treatment of Real's 34,000 workers in recent years and said the company should be sold as a whole.
"First the workforce forwent part of their wages ... then the company shredded the collective bargaining agreement, and now Real is going to be sold," said Stefanie Nutzenberger from Verdi.
In focusing its business, Metro has already sold its Kaufhof department stores and split from consumer electronics retailer Ceconomy. Real's stores in eastern Europe were sold to French retailer Auchan in 2012.
Metro's shares closed down 1.2 percent in Frankfurt at 13.51 euros.
(Additional reporting by Matthias Inverardi. Writing by Caroline Copley. Editing by Mark Potter and Elaine Hardcastle)